The Great Internet Cookie Crumble leaves behind risky morsels

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Thanks to the humble cookie, our favorite websites can remember us, greeting our return visits like a conscientious barista. But thanks to these tiny files, some serious privacy abuses have occurred. Cookies will disappear this year, though the problem may be a solved one.

Invented 30 years ago by a 23-year-old Netscape engineer, the cookie was initially intended to act as an identifier so users didn't have to keep logging in. However, it has long been chosen by the advertising industry. As a way to snoop on what users are doing. Loading even the most basic web page these days means dozens of tracking cookies are being silently placed on your computer. Suddenly, a quick search for a one-off purchase can spark a frenzy, with every website co-ordinated in its determination to serve up your newfound passion for collecting mattresses or whatever.

Efforts to curb this tracking — notably Europe's General Data Protection Regulation — have worsened the browsing experience. I could be unconscious and still click “Accept All” instinctively.

The good news is that cookies are gone. But privacy isn't coming back, parts of the web may become even less user-friendly, and Google seems poised to gain more control.

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Last month, Google withdrew 1% of Chrome users and disabled third-party cookies as a test, with plans to do the same for all users in the third quarter of this year, pending approval from regulators. Third-party cookies are those placed on your computer by companies unrelated to the website you're visiting — often (though not exclusively) for the purpose of tracking your browsing to deliver more relevant ads. It's a win-win, but privacy advocates argue it's a gross intrusion used to collect intimate details like visits to medical websites and sell them to the highest bidder. (First-party cookies, which are used to remember that users are logged in, are not affected by Google's changes.)

Apple and Mozilla have already taken this step with their Safari and Firefox browsers, respectively, but given Chrome's market share in browser usage — 64% worldwide — marketers are now starting to panic. It is safe in the advertising industry. All are not well managed. I've seen it called the “Great Cookie Crumble”, as well as the “Cookie Apocalypse” and “Cookiegeddon”.

From an advertiser's perspective, or for companies whose business models rely on ad revenue, the panic is understandable. Tracking people on the Internet is about to become more difficult, upending the way many free sites and services position themselves. But the industry adapts, which can have a number of negative knock-on effects.

The end of cookies does not mean that advertisers and data brokers will stop collecting data. A hint of the post-cookie future can be found with Amazon's deal reported Monday with UK-based publisher Reach, owner of several titles, most prominently the tabloid Daily Mirror and OK! magazine Amazon, whose ad business is expected to bring in more than $55 billion in revenue this year, will pay Reach an undisclosed amount to gain access to data about which articles a person reads, using these insights to target ads.

That deal could be the first of many now that advertising companies and publishers know Google, after some dithering, is getting serious about its cookie depreciation plan. Consumers expect a degraded browsing experience as more sites force people to sign up just to read free articles so they can identify and package them for advertising targeting. It threatens to make publishing websites, already some of the most stifling sites on the web, an even deeper user trap. Already loading some of these sites makes the device hot enough to fry an egg – I dread to think what kind of pop-up-ridden mess readers will soon have to see.

Google, for its part, is offering other ways to fill the gaps. Its privacy sandbox is a suite of tools that website builders use to compensate for lost functionality. For example, Google is busy classifying the 50,000 most popular websites (and using machine learning to classify the rest) to guess that a person is interested in broad topics like “football” or “gardening”. This data — stored locally on the person's device — can be used by website owners to run targeted ads.

Privacy rights campaigners such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have serious doubts about Google's efforts to “reinvent” the cookie and put in place what it sees as equally dangerous solutions. They warn that when cross-referenced, the new tools can reveal more data on a user's browsing habits than a cookie does. “Google, please don't do this,” it concluded.

The concern is justified. While the fall of cookies may seem like a step forward for privacy, think again. This is Google we're talking about. Or, more to the point, it's the Internet. Ads and data are its lifeblood. You're still for sale, and the cookie apocalypse won't change that.

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